Hello! Long time no write. I am embarking on an exciting new project, crowdfunding an annual publication called The New Almanac, a reinvention of the traditional rural almanac, full of gardening, recipes, folklore and tables on the phases of the moon, sun, tides and more. Just a week into the crowdfunding and it is a third funded, but it needs your support in order to happen! Please have a look at my page [click here] and short video here and pledge if you can.
A sunny day with nothing to do but hang out with the kids doesn’t come along often, and so on Sunday my mind turned to picnics. My birthday is in May, and I have a romantic turn of mind, so I am no stranger to the ‘whoah, bugger, it’s still WAY too early for a picnic!’ style of picnic: pretty tablecloths and sandwich wrappers whisked away on a stiff breeze; blankets intended for lounging instead being fashioned into a swift bivouac against a passing hailstorm, and so on. But still, the weather forecast looked so promising I had even gone without tights (albeit with an emergency pair in my bag) and part of the whole deal with picnics is the triumph of hope over experience. We packed our picnic, brave, optimistic souls.
My new book – my first recipe book – is published in ten days time, and I am all nerves. I wanted to revisit some of the recipes and reassure myself that all is good, plus I thought it would be fun to eat them in the sunshine/unforecasted sleet. The book is called ‘Petal, Leaf, Seed: cooking with the treasures of the garden’, (and you can preorder it HERE) and it is about all of those delicious little nubs of flavour that you can grow in the garden – although lots of the ingredients can also be bought without too much ado. Over the last few years I have found that I prefer to concentrate on growing a harvest of prettiness and taste than on growing the bulk – rose, calendula and viola petals over potatoes; coconutty fig leaves and sharp, fruity blackcurrant leaves over onions; aniseedy fennel seeds and fat peppery radish seeds over parsnips. And this is what the book is about, the growing and the cooking.
Being in a rush on Sunday morning I went for straightforward picnic fare – bread, hard boiled eggs, cheese, and then something from each section of the book to pep them up: a little salad topped with primroses and violas, a couple of dipping salts made from seeds and nuts; and a herby pesto.
When writing the book I had particularly lovely fun investigating pestos, green sauces and their relatives, and realised that there is a formula that is repeated all over the world with different herbs and accompanying ingredients. Once you have it down pat you can use whatever is at hand and each time come up with something delicious, so here it is: some herbs; a thickener; something umami in flavour; garlic and oil. So bearing that pattern in mind, the classic pesto goes: basil; pine nuts; parmesan; garlic and oil. Then as you move around the Mediterranean you find other versions that change the herbs, omit nuts and cheese but introduce umami in the form of anchovies (salsa verde), or swap basil for tarragon and pine nuts for breadcrumbs (salsa alla dragoncello, from Sienna). There is even laksa pesto in Singapore, thought to have arisen when Portuguese settlers met local ingredients, and made from coriander pounded with cashew nuts and fish sauce. I love a blueprint like this because I think it frees you up to just cook with what’s at hand, rather than feeling you have to follow a recipe, and I put pages like this throughout the book.
And hence sure enough the pesto I made for the picnic was in this spirit: parsley and chives; toasted hazelnuts; parmesan; oil, salt and pepper. We dipped the bread and the boiled eggs into it, and ate it with the cheese, and the sun shone, and the children ran around like dogs for a full five hours. I’m afraid I did put my emergency tights on, but that hailstorm never came.
If you would like to have a peak at the book you will find it HERE
I made a Christmas cake at the weekend. Here’s why I like making Christmas cake:
1) When I was at college far away Mum would make an extra one, and then give me half of it to take back with me after Christmas, and it’s that sort of a thing: a labour of love, packed full of sustaining things. ‘If you can’t afford to pay for any heating at least you’ll have a half-moon of masses of fruit jammed together sat in the bottom of your rucksack’ goes the thinking. She still makes an extra one and gives half to my brother, who lives in York and not actually in the trenches. But I recognise the urge from when I pack my kids’ packed lunches for school: ‘I can’t be there if you fall over, but maybe this flapjack will remind you that I love you, if you do.’ And the thing about a Christmas cake is that no one but the maker realises what a palaver it is, which makes it extra mum.
2) I like the fact that so many people tackle it, that everyone feels the same, about their mum making it, and their nana before, and so feels like it is a part of their thing. It isn’t a hard thing to make per se, but like I say: palaver. The buying of the million bits of fruit, the wrapping with newspaper, the fashioning of a funny hat with a hole so the top doesn’t burn and the incredibly long slow cooking (mine took SIX hours). I like that there is no celebrity ‘my take on’ or ‘three ways with’ required to spur us into doing it. It just is. We always have.
3) And I love that this so very British, cosy, sustaining, ingrained thing comes from so many other places, and that our Christmas traditions are impossible to extricate from our history of connection, travel and openness with the rest of the world. Raisins from Turkey, sultanas from Iran, cinnamon from Sri Lanka. That thought reminded me of this snippet of film from the house of commons this week, in which the wonderful Dennis Skinner takes on UKIP’s newest MP, and talks proudly of his ‘United Nations heart by pass’. It is 51 seconds that will lift your own heart, and a good reminder what a bullshit version of Great Britain UKIP is peddling. There are lots of things that are only here because of our mixed up, complex, outwards-facing history. Dennis Skinner and Christmas cake are among them.
I won an award last week. I am now Practical Journalist of the Year, as awarded by the Garden Media Guild, for pieces I wrote in the Guardian. ‘Practical’ journalist is a bit of a funny one. It implies I’ve been writing particularly clear step-by-step instructions on how to dig a hole, when actually I’ve been writing about my ideas for environmentally friendly lawns, the unconventional ways I recycle waste in my garden, and the crops I produce on my veranda. As I now have my new whizzy website you can see the three features for which I received the award here, under ‘The Guardian’, should you be so inclined. Not a hole among them, see? SEE?
I was properly unprepared speech-wise, but remembered to thank Jane Perrone, who edits the gardening section of the Guardian Weekend mag. It was only after that I realised I should have given a mention to the lovely Joel Redman who always takes the pictures. Weekend’s standard request is for him to produce ‘graphic’ images, which makes everyone blush a little and start talking about the weather. In fact he has never once asked me to loosen my top button, but does manage to conjure clean space and strong lines and render my chaotic garden Weekend-Mag-friendly.
GMG awards time is always a little odd. I know well the disappointment of not being shortlisted, and how random the judging can seem if you don’t get a whiff, how spot on if you do. I think I even got a little told off last time I won one for running around twitter going on about how great I was. So I will just say that it feels good, and that when you earn your living from doing this it is a particularly big deal. Other than that I will confine myself to a little Mona Lisa smile every now and then, and I definitely wont assemble a gospel choir, climb into a boxing ring and do this:
No, almost certainly not.
Here find my brand new blog. Welcome! I have a new blog because I have a new website, and the blog – once a place to earnestly express the issues burning in my breast – now serves as a cynical method of luring you into my marketing machine. In fact, this website had been created to put all the things I do together in one place and make me look ultra-busy and professional, and so to impress potential employers so much that they spontaneously offer me interesting and well-paid work. It isn’t really intended for the likes of you, but hey, you’re here now so you may as well have a look around. (Only joking: I’m desperate for your approval).
If you were a subscriber to my old blog (and even if you weren’t) I’d be truly delighted if you would pop your details in the email subscriber to your right in order to be kept bang up to date with my vital missives on cakes, things one of my kids just did which made me laugh, allotments and knickerbocker glories.